Friday, July 25, 2014

Hall of Fame Weekend: Cox, Maddux, Glavine and the '90s Atlanta Dynasty

With manager Bobby Cox and two of his three aces, the sublime right-hander Greg Maddux and the sublime southpaw Tom Glavine, accounting for half of the six Hall of Fame inductees being honored this weekend in Cooperstown, a subtext is surely the remarkable run of the Atlanta Braves between 1991 and 2005. The third ace, right-hander John Smoltz, becomes eligible for consideration in next year's Hall of Fame class. They were together for ten years beginning in 1993, when Mad Dog (that would be the perpetually-innocent looking Maddux) signed with the Braves as a free agent (after six years with the Cubs), until Glavine departed as a free agent after the 2002 season. In the first year they were all together, 21 years ago, the Braves won major league baseball's last great traditional pennant race with a dramatic come-from-way-behind surge to take the National League's Western Division.    

Hall of Fame Weekend: Cox, Maddux, Glavine and the 1990s Atlanta Dynasty

Bobby Cox was in his third full season as the Braves manager in 1993. He had stepped from the plush air conditioning of the front office where he was General Manager into the outdoor heat and humidity of the Atlanta dugout in the summer of 1990. The Braves finished with the worst record in the National League that year, making it quite the surprise then when he managed Atlanta to the NL Western Division title the very next year, and into the World Series besides. In a year that is a prime candidate for his best managerial performance, Cox's 1991 Braves trailed the Dodgers by as much as 9-1/2 games on July 7 before storming back into the pennant race that went down to the last weekend. Cox managed the Braves to 18 wins in 25 games down the September stretch in which first place was directly at stake with his team no more than a game ahead or a game behind at the start of play.

But 1991 was nothing compared to the drama of 1993, when Atlanta trailed San Francisco by 10 games on July 22--their worst deficit of the season--and by 9-1/2 as late as August 7. From then until the end of the season, Cox managed the Braves to a phenomenal 39-11 record (.780 winning percentage) the rest of the way to overtake the Giants. A nine-game winning streak got them started, bringing the Braves to within 6-1/2 games on August 18. A stretch of 17 victories in 21 games finally put them in first place alone on September 11, but the division title was not secured until the final day of the season when the Braves won their 104th, while the Giants had to settle for 103 after losing to the Dodgers.

If this was the current wild card era, Atlanta and San Francisco would both have been virtually assured a place in the playoffs even as early as September 10 because, even though they were tied for first in their division, they shared a 9-1/2 game advantage in what would have been the wild card race. The Braves and Giants would have spent the rest of the season battling each other for position rather than a playoff berth, their focus geared more towards lining up their starting pitchers and providing whatever rest was needed for the weary to enhance their prospects in the post-season. Moreover, losing out on first place then was not as consequential as now when MLB has a single-elimination game for two wild card entries in each league, because then the wild card team was an automatic entry--although without home field advantage--in the best-of-seven division series round. But 1993 was the last season before the wild card format began, which meant the only avenue to the post-season was winning the division. The Giants' only consolation for winning the extraordinary number of 103 games was ... knowing they had won 103 games (well, there is that), as they sat at home while the post-season went on without them.

The offensive catalyst for Atlanta's momentous drive to the division title was the July 19 acquisition of San Diego first baseman Fred McGriff, who hit .310 with 19 home runs and 55 RBI in 68 games for the Braves. It was the Braves' brilliant pitching, however, that kept up the momentum. Maddux, who began the month of August in his first year in Atlanta with a 12-8 record and 2.83 ERA, was 8-2 in his last 12 starts with an ERA of 1.46 to earn his second consecutive Cy Young Award. Glavine was 11-2 after the Braves had trailed by 10 games and ended the season with a 22-6 record. Smoltz, who was muddling about with an 8-8 record as of July 22, finished with seven wins in his last ten decisions. And now-forgotten southpaw Steve Avery was 8-3 from that point to finish with an 18-6 record.

Superior pitching defined the Braves' run of excellence--Atlanta led the National League in fewest runs allowed 11 consecutive years between 1992 and 2002--and it was Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz who defined the Braves' superior pitching. As noted in an earlier post on this blog,, from the time Maddux came to Atlanta in 1993 until Smoltz was forced to sit out the 2000 season with Tommy John surgery (after which the three were not in the same rotation again because Smoltz returned as the closer), the Braves had the most sustained run of starting pitcher excellence in major league history. No other team ever had a trio of starters that could match them for performance excellence for multiple seasons. In the seven years they were together in the rotation, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz had a combined 342-166 record (that's a .673 winning percentage) and won five Cy Young Awards between them.

Maddux, of course, won three of them--all in a row in 1993, '94 and '95--making him the first pitcher not only to win four straight Cy Young Awards (his string began in 1992 with the Cubs), but the first pitcher to win that many in all. I argued in back-to-back posts last year that, notwithstanding that his excellence has never been questioned, Maddux is under-appreciated for the dominating pitcher he was because he did not fit the classical mode of being a power pitcher or a big strikeout pitcher in the context of his times. and

Greg Maddux was most definitely not a "dominating" power pitcher; he never led the league in strikeouts and his strikeouts-to-innings pitched ratio was typically only marginally better than the league average. Even so, from 1992 to 1998--the years he was at his best--Maddux was one of the most dominant pitchers of all time. In his first six years in Atlanta (1993-98), Maddux's 2.15 ERA was more than two full runs less than the National League average ERA of 4.18; his walks plus hits ratio per inning was less than one at 0.97 while the league average WHIP was nearly 50 percent higher at 1.38; and his control was so good that he allowed only 1.4 walks per 9 innings compared to the league average of 3.3 per 9, and 15 percent of the walks he gave up were intentional.

Tom Glavine was nearly the equal of Maddux as a master of his craft. With back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1991 and 1992, Glavine had already established himself as one of baseball's elite pitchers by the time Maddux became his teammate in '93. He was not as stingy in giving up hits, walks and runs as Mad Dog and his strikeouts-to-innings ratio was typically even less impressive than Maddux, but Glavine won at least 20 games to lead the league five times in his Brave years. Maddux had only two 20-win seasons--in his last year in Chicago and his first in Atlanta--but almost certainly would have had four in a row were it not for the collective bargaining dispute that cost a total of 66 games in the 1994 and 1995 seasons. Maddux won 19 games for the Braves on four separate occasions, including a 19-2 record in 1995, a season shortened by 18 games because of the strike.

Bobby Cox led the Braves to an unprecedented and unsurpassed 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005, with the hiccup of there being no division title awarded in 1994 when the season was suspended with the Braves in second place in their first year in the realigned National League's Eastern Division. With 48 games left on the schedule, however, there was still plenty of time to close a much smaller gap than had to be overcome in 1993. Cox's most formidable Brave teams were when Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz anchored the starting rotation and his best managerial performances were likely in 1991 and 1993 when he led the Braves to division titles from far behind in the mid-summer standings. But a strong argument can be made that Cox's managerial genius was most on display in the last seven of Atlanta's 14 consecutive division titles because of the high turnover of players that was a reflection of aging, free agent losses and budget mindfulness. Bobby Cox was a master at integrating new players to keep Atlanta's supremacy of the National League East going and going ... at least until 2006 when the Mets finally prevailed.

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